One reason why fake news is dangerous is that we don’t like changing our mind about our views on a topic. Once we have decided upon a point of view it often colours any further information received, which is why for example conspiracy theories take hold. But new research in Intelligence journal suggests this is truer for some people more than others. For mentally sharp people, the results suggest it’s relatively easy to see through an outdated perspective, while for those of lower cognitive ability, the old point of view remain.
A recent study conducted by recruited 390 participants from an online pool, and asked them to read a description of a nurse named Nathalie. For some participants this description ended with a damning revelation: Nathalie had been stealing drugs from the hospital and selling them to buy designer clothes. Understandably, these participants subsequently rated Nathalie negatively, as less trustworthy, sincere, warm, and hostile, compared to a control group who hadn’t been told about her misdeeds.
The sustained negative ratings of Nathalie given by the those with lower cognitive ability were only about ten points more negative than those given by the other groups, on average. This effect would present a problem in the real world where obscenely fake news can be rapidly shared, most importantly, it could still leave a lasting impact on some people.
It’s not clear at this stage exactly the role that cognitive ability has, for example, whether it’s directly involved in the correction of false beliefs and/or if it correlates with other traits that might be relevant. This is important because cognitive ability itself is hard to improve whereas associated skills like critical thinking are more trainable. We do know that cognitive ability was still relevant even after the researchers factored out obvious confounds like the personality traits of “need for closure” and authoritarianism, both of which are associated with lower cognitive ability and related to a dislike of ambiguity.
It would be useful for research to use a more refined measure of cognitive ability than the one used. Another limitation of the current research is that no evidence was given to justify either the initial or revised claims about Nathalie (of course this is exactly how many of us encounter claims on social media and elsewhere). Future studies could examine people’s ability to interpret fake, biased or otherwise dubious evidence.
Fake News and Social Media
The social media giant Facebook has been under intense scrutiny unto developing a way of detecting fake news and removing it from users news feeds but this is proving to be incredibly difficult without losing precious revenues from ‘clickbait’ advertisers. But the recent changes to Facebook’s algorithm should improve the user experience and this will hopefully only be the start of Mark Zuckerberg’s 2018 mission to put users first again.
Ready more about how deception is unravelling throughout the social media world on another topic of fake accounts here.
There is also increasing attention on how to help people tackle fake news on first contact; such as this BBC initiative, which involved mentoring school pupils on how to spot fake news and this new study reinforces the value of such tactics. The message is that where possible, we should prevent stubborn false ideas from taking root: it may be harder than we realise to shift them once we they have taken hold.